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Fiction #45
(published June 21, 2001)
by Andrew Wilson

Lord Ijo sent palanquins and a small escort of mounted samurai, their saddles draped in red silk, to convey Matsuo and Osai to Kobe Castle for the New Year's Day banquet.

It was a day of brilliant skies and sharp cold.

Matsuo wore a haori that had belonged to the Instructor - handpainted on the back with a design of a kingfisher flying above cresting waves - while Osai wore one of her mother's chrysanthemum pattern kimonos, tied with a wide gold obi.

These formal clothes smelled of dust and mold when they were first removed from the depths of the chest. Osai had to spend several hours scenting them with an incense-stick.

Osai had never ridden in a palanquin before. However, the trip was far easier than she expected. As soon as the palanquin-bearers reached the Castle road, they began to jog smoothly. There were no jolts; she was hardly even aware of movement.

Kobe Castle, looming over the plain, had been designed as a stronghold for warriors and supplies during the period of the Warring States. Yet the graceful, spreading shape of the roofs and the smooth, inward-slanting stone walls made it seem more like a country villa than a war stronghold.

It was one of the few castles in this province that had not been razed during the chaos before Tokugawa Ieyasu assumed power. It had endured several lengthy seiges without suffering any serious harm. Now, the massive gates - of age-stained cypress-wood - stood open. They were only shut during periods of drought or when a peasant uprising occurred in some neighboring fief. Should a rebellion ever happen here, the Castle would certainly hold until the arrival of the Shogunate's troops. The placid, shimmering water of the moat reflected drifting clouds.

Osai and Matsuo climbed from the palanquins in a wide, swept-gravel courtyard.

Osai did not at first recognize Sumi Koshiba. He stood among high-ranking samurai - dressed formally, like them, in layers of silk and brocade. The short sword thrust into his sash had a decorative copper sword guard. He was holding a fan.

Ah, she said, and laughed. She bowed.

Sumi's eyes wrinkled in amusement. He bowed to her, and to Matsuo.

Sir Kyoshi, he said.

I am honored to be the guest of Lord Ijo, Matsuo said simply.

The Lord is within. I will bring you and the girl in to him shortly. You will eat and drink well here. Tonight there will be a Noh performance.

Matsuo bowed.

Osai sat with the Castle's women at the rear of the wide banquet hall, while Matsuo took his place with Sumi Koshiba and the high-ranking samurai at the front.

Osai knew none of these women. Some murmured to each other, but none spoke to her. She kept her gaze fixed on the front of the hall.

It was silent but for the creaking of boards and a few stifled coughs.

When the Lord Ijo - a white bearded, white haired old man draped in shining silks - entered the hall, Osai bowed in unison with the other guests, touching her forehead to the floor.

The Lord took his seat and, raising his fan, loudly called out for sake.

An enormous cask was borne into the hall by four servants and set down, with excessive care, before the dais. Then, at a signal from the Lord, one of the servants deftly opened the cask with a few sharp blows of an adze. Some of the liquor was poured out into a silver bowl and taken out to the garden to be emptied at the roots of the sacred pine tree. A Shinto priest in a conical red hat then danced, waving an ancient-looking sword over the heads of the Lord and all the kneeling bowed samurai, before blessing the Castle in garbled-sounding words of old Japanese.

Another large bowl was poured brimming-full of sake and presented by a kneeling servant to Lord Ijo - who sipped three times, slurping loudly, and in a thin, tremoring voice pronounced it fit for consumption by his guests.

For Osai, the afternoon was a long one. Dozens of different delicacies on lacquered trays made the rounds of the guests, and two more casks of sake were ceremonially opened, with the sharp cloc cloc of the adze and the high, chanted blessing of the Shinto priest. Some of the sake reached the rear of the hall, where the women sat, but the samurai consumed most of it.

Throughout the banquet, Osai continued to observe Matsuo.

The ronin no longer knelt in the formal posture, but sat cross-legged on his cushion, like the others. Yet she could have distinguished him instantly from them even had he not been wearing her father's haori. He held his spine straight, and all of his movements were slow and dignified.

The small amount of sake Osai had drunk began to affect her senses. She found herself staring at the Chamberlain, Retsudo's father, seated on the dais to one side of the Lord.

Did father and son resemble one another?

She tried to see Retsudo Iyedo clearly in her minds' eye, but she could not seem to fix his features in relation to one another. His eyes, nose, and lips seemed to float apart. He was disappearing.

She swallowed thickly and shut her eyes.

The Noh stage had been erected in an inner courtyard before the gaunt, towering structure of the Castle Keep.

A bonfire of pine logs, set ablaze with oil, gave off waves of almost intolerable light. As knots in the pine logs exploded, Osai heard gunshots. The Castle, she thought, was under attack - Again, she took her place with the women, while Matsuo sat close to the stage with the high-ranking samurai.

That night, five different plays were performed by a Noh troup from Suga. Each lasted for almost an hour. Between these plays the same actors, after a hurried change of costume, performed short comic sketches, making fun of commoners and itinerant monks, that caused the audience to howl with demented laughter.

Matsuo, Osai noticed, did not laugh. She herself only laughed politely when the women around her did.

She found herself completely unprepared for the eerie intensity of the Noh plays.

Although some of the language was too archaic for her to grasp, the stories were childishly simple. A wandering priest, in an unfamiliar part of the country, hears a story from a passer-by about a battle that once occurred on that desolate spot, or a woman who committed suicide long ago after being abandoned by her lover. Then the spirit of a fallen warrior, or a woman who killed herself for love, appears to the priest and tells his or her story. At the end, the priest prays for the salvation of the spirit.

At moments, Osai seemed to soar above herself, yet simultaneously to fall a long, long way, into profound darkness. Time stretched out to such vastness that it vanished completely, and all that was left was space, the space on and around and above the stage - space extending to the depths of the earth and to the height of the stars. The dense firelight writhed and twisted on the robes of the actors, causing their shadows walk in huge strides while they took light, almost imperceptible steps. The sharp trills of the flute sent vast shivers up and down Osai's spine; the rattle of the stick drums made her heart clamor as if she were drowning, or caught in the grip a violent fever.

As the shike - playing the spirit of a beautiful young woman who had killed herself for the love of a handsome courtier - stood at the center of the stage, chanting shrill-voiced verses about autumn winds that whisper in the pine trees around Suma, he slowly raised the shut fan held in his right hand to chest level. Then, even more slowly, he spread the fan wide.

The traveling priest bowed to the shike, who, by holding the fan over her face, indicated that she was weeping.

The play ended abruptly with a poem about the pine trees of Suma, delivered by the sitting chorus at the rear of the stage, and a few shattering, breathy notes of the flute.

At that instant, the light of the bonfire erupted in a roar that sent shadows scattering from the stage.

It was now the deepest hour of the night. The audience, enclosed in a deep, dazed stillness, began to empty out of the courtyard.

Osai looked for Matsuo, but did not see him. Nor could she find Sumi Koshiba among the dispersing samurai.

A few of the women who had sat around Osai during the performance approached her with charming smiles, tugging on her kimono sleeves. She allowed herself to be swept by them into the Castle, through a maze of darkened corridors.

She found herself in a large tea room in which about forty people had gathered. But this time she was not seated at the back. She and the other women knelt opposite a line of samurai, among them Matsuo and Sumi Koshiba.

Instead of silence, as in the banquet hall, there was a great deal of laughter and murmuring. She tried to catch Matsuo's gaze, but could not.

Sumi Koshiba, catching Osai's eyes, winked at her. She gave him a forced smile and a subdued bow.

All present bowed deeply when Lord Ijo again joined them, this time in a simpler kimono that squeaked as he strode to his seat. He was followed by a few servants bearing large iron braziers heaped with smoldering charcoal.

Then a cask of sake was rolled into the tea room and opened without ceremony. Bowls were poured full by the servants and placed before each guest. The Lord took his seat at the head of the room.

We drink to the New Year and to the good fortune of the Clan, he said, raising his sake bowl in both hands and drinking it dry in large gulps.

All the guests did the same.

Osai shut her eyes as she drank. The sake made her head swim.

As she set down the empty bowl - a servant was already moving swiftly around the room, refilling the bowls from a pitcher - Osai noticed a middle aged man seated close to the Lord. He, too, had just drained his sake bowl and was setting it down carefully on the dazzling white tatami mat.

She noticed him not because any detail of his clothes or appearance caused him to stand out from the other samurai, but because he emanated an impression of exceptional strength and refinement.

Then she realized that this was the actor who had played the shike roles in the Noh performance.

She was not sure how she knew it. During the plays, he had worn a mask- a god, a demon, a warrior, a beautiful young woman. Although there was nothing strange about his appearance - he was neither young nor exceptionally handsome - Osai could not take her eyes from the man.

Her skin thrilled. Turning her head slightly, she found Matsuo's eyes fixed on her. Piercingly.

She gave a slight, awkward bow.

He scowled.

Osai felt a blush rise to her face and neck. Glancing casually around the room, she noted the three samurai seated closest to the Lord - by the crests on their haori, these men were clearly guests from another Clan. They were feigning a lighthearted conversation with the Chamberlain, but Osai saw at once that their attention was fixed on Matsuo.

She looked back at the ronin. He raised his sake bowl and, staring at Osai over the rim, drank it dry

After the second cask of sake, the company became almost boisterous.

Only the head Noh actor and Matsuo, it seemed to Osai, remained as reserved and solemn as before.

As Lord Ijo rapped his fan sharply on the floor, all conversation and laughter stopped.

He pointed the fan at Matsuo, who bowed.

His voice climbing so high it quavered, the Lord said:

Sir Kyoshi, I have been told that you are indeed an unsurpassable fencer.

Matsuo bowed again.

Such rumors are shamefully exaggerated, my Lord.

Tut-tut. I wonder if you would like to give us a demonstration of your fencing.

Sir, I would like nothing better than to please you, but this would be a poor amusement indeed. It would not live up to your expectations. There are some here able to compose exquisite waka. Perhaps a contest of poetry would better suit the mood of this gathering.

In the painful silence that ensued, Osai's eardrums throbbed.

The samurai near Matsuo stiffened.

Oh, come now, the Lord said, finally, laughing in hard rasps. Would you deny a frail old man his pleasure?

The Chamberlain spoke up harshly, before Lord Ijo quieted him with a motion of the fan:

This Lord is old enough to recall battles in which two thousand samurai perished in a single hour.

Matsuo bowed.

I spoke outside my duty. What does the most gracious Lord wish? A few of the women near Osai had been holding their breath. She heard them sigh with relief as they exhaled.

The Lord pointed his fan at the Noh actor, whose face did not change.

Sir Aki no Moritomo is not only a great actor, but also a certified master of the Joshen-ryu style.

Aki no Moritomo bowed gracefully.

The Lord went on:

I propose a test match. You, Sir Kyoshi, will have a practice sword of split bamboo encased in leather. Sir Moritomo will have - his fan.

Osai watched the three samurai who were not from the Kobe clan. Their faces remained bland and empty, but their eyes shone as if with hunger.

Matsuo laughed.

My Lord, since you insist I will do so with pleasure. But may I request that Sir Moritomo face my highest-ranking student first?

The Lord's face clouded.

You have a s-student? Of what school?

Matsuo bowed.

The Suro-ryu, Sir.

And do you teach the Suro-ryu style, Sir Kyoshi?

My Lord, I teach victory.

At first, the Lord's face seemed to swell with outrage, but he quickly gained control over himself and, after a glance at the scowling Chamberlain, chuckled. All others in the room also chuckled politely. He tapped his fan on the tatami mat and called for a servant to bring a practice sword from the Castle dojo.

Sir Kyoshi, you are most eloquent. I am curious to see what your student will do against a master such as Sir Moritomo.

Osai removed her clogs, then carefully extracted the whalebone comb from her hair and placed it beside them before rising and walking in slow strides to the center of the room, where she stood facing the actor. Her throat was so parched it flamed. She felt that her skin, though profusely powdered, must be visibly flushed from the sake she had drunk. She controlled the rapid palpitations of her heart by focusing her breathing in her lower abdomen, as Matsuo had taught her to do.

She shook her head slightly so that the hair fell over her shoulders.

Several of the samurai muttered cheerful oaths.

Osai gazed around the room, her chin held high. Catching Sumi Koshiba's eye, she bowed to him. He frowned.

When she looked at Matsuo, he was scowling his hands on his knees, spine held straight, eyes brilliant with intelligence and energy.

She bowed to him. He bowed deeply in return.

The actor had removed his haori. As the guests observed in tense silence, Osai and Aki no Moritomo tied the sleeves up above their elbows. A servant came forward to give Osai the practice sword. She took it with an air of scornful curiosity, holding it away from her body to see it better.

Please begin, said the Lord.

With calm deliberation, she assumed the ronin's one-handed stance.

Aki no Moritomo removed the fan from inside his kimono and, slowly extending his arm, held it at eyebrow height, pointed at Osai.

To Osai, it seemed as if the fan projected a beam of powerful light at her forehead.

She knew that, if she allowed the invisible smooth current of energy flowing through the actor's fan to distract her, she would lose the match.

Feeling her insides stir, and her heart throb painfully, Osai stepped slowly to one side, but the fan followed her, Aki no Moritomo turning his hips to move as she moved.

She took hold of the handle of the pliable bamboo-in-leather practice sword with the fingers of her other hand. With a majestic slowness that brought moans of appreciation from some of the women, she raised the sword a few inches higher, so that it blocked the ki radiating painfully into a point at the center of her forehead.

She allowed her mind to empty. And, suddenly, the numbing influence of the sake she had drunk since the evening before was gone. Her awareness was once again brilliant, unclouded. She felt the ki flowing with a great smooth surge through all her limbs and into the practice sword.

She lowered the point of her sword until it nearly touched the tatami mat - holding it as one might hold a fishing pole on a bridge, with the line dangling into a calm river - as she strode forward three steps, her tabi-clad feet gliding along the mat as her chest exploded in a hair-raising shout.


Aki no Moritomo did not move, although she saw his neck throb as he swallowed. He kept the closed fan pointed at Osai's forehead.

A sweat came out on Osai's body.

She was now close enough to strike him with the practice sword, but the actor's stance, his bearing, his spirit was so powerful that she could not see where to strike.

Osai had the clear sense that if she did not strike him at once something terrible would occur. Yet she could not see an opening. A violent nausea flooded her body.

The tea room began to shift into strange perspectives.

Aki no Moritomo became as huge, as threatening, as a mountain, while Osai seemed, in her own perceptions, to shrink to the size of a pebble.

He smiled.

Oddly, in this smile was remorse and even - she thought - affection. It was a smile of gaiety, of clear understanding, of compassion for them both as creatures lost in a dark and senseless world.

In this smile, Osai also discerned a gentle, chilling seductiveness. At that instant, Aki no Moritomo emanated the same ethereal beauty as he did onstage while playing the role of a beautiful young concubine. A loud clap broke the stillness.

Osai lowered the sword and stepped back - dizzy, breathing almost in gasps.

Aki no Moritomo slowly lowered his fan.

Lord Ijo stood, his head turning from one side of the room to another.

His voice crackled with rage:

Who clapped? Who stopped this match?

Matsuo bowed.

My Lord, I did.

Do you call this match a draw? The Lord cried.

No, my Lord. I call it nothing.

Lord Ijo tried to speak but sputtered with rage. The Chamberlain was now also on his feet. Osai noticed the three who were not Kobe samurai become rigid as if for battle.

Matsuo bowed again.

My Lord, I have made a grievous error. For this, I beg your forgiveness. This girl is not equal to the skills of Sir Moritomo.

I saw neither one strike, the Lord said, the color coming back to his face.

Sumi Koshiba said:

My Lord, it is clear that the girl was about to faint.

Is this so?

Osai bowed and said: I will fight, my Lord. I beg you to let the match continue.

It should not continue, Sumi Koshiba boomed.

Osai glanced at the actor. He was gazing to one side, with an expression of real sadness. This expression pierced her heart.

I will fight, she said, her voice going hoarse.

Matsuo stood, stripping off his haori. He folded it and placed it on his cushion. As the company looked on, he strode to the center of the tea room and swiftly tied up his sleeves.

An excited murmur swept the room when the long, sordid looking sealed gash on Matsuo's forearm was exposed. Matsuo ignored the uproar

Go, he whispered to Osai. Sit. Watch closely.

Lowering her head in a dark burst of shame, she obeyed.

Matsuo faced the dais and gave a dignified bow.

My Lord, Sir Moritomo's skills are indeed extraordinary. I therefore ask that we be permitted to duel with naked blades. We will agree to stop our blades short of cutting through the skin. This will give you a better conception of our abilities than - he paused to cast his gaze scornfully around the room - practice swords and fans.

I concur, the actor said, after clearing his throat.

Then I will permit it, the Lord said.

The Chamberlain looked shocked.

Sumi Koshiba said:

Is this necessary, my Lord?

I have spoken, Lord Ijo said, taking his seat. Have the swords brought so that Sir Kyoshi and Sir Moritomo may proceed.

A servant was sent in great haste for the long swords that both men had left with a guard outside the main Castle.

Meantime, Matsuo and Aki no Moritomo remained kneeling before the dais. Osai kept her eyes fixed on Matsuo's shoulders. She felt the burning gaze of others around the room on her, but did not look around.

When the servant returned from the guard station, he went to Matsuo first to present the ronin with his long sword in its lacquered scabbard. Matsuo drew it out and handed back the scabbard. He then drew the short sword, still sheathed, from his sash and gave that also to the servant, who bowed.

The servant went to the actor, who regarded the proffered long sword for a moment before shaking his head. He drew the short sword out of his sash, unsheathed it, and - cheerfully, it seemed - handed over the empty scabbard.

Again, the servant bowed before making his way with comical haste, arms full, to the back of the tea room.

At Lord Ijo's sign, both men turned, still kneeling, to face one another, their weapons extended - and slowly rose to their feet.

At this moment of explosive tension, when it seemed that anything at all might happen, Matsuo turned his head to one side and, casually, wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his kimono.

There were gasps - cries -from the line of kneeling samurai.

Matsuo shrugged his shoulders and resumed the dueling stance. But now the tension of his stance seemed to have been broken; he held his long sword extended at an almost clumsy angle.

Aki no Moritomo kept the short sword, its mirror-like blade gleaming, pointed at Matsuo's forehead.

Osai looked closely at Matsuo. He was scowling, as if with boredom. Aki no Moritomo - smiled.

Matsuo's shout jolted Osai's body. It was a clumsy, brutal roar, like that of a gored bull.

With the shout he rushed forward, his tabi-clad feet appearing to glide a few inches above the tatami.

Osai saw a blue halo of sparks as the swords flashed and struck together. There were two shivering strikes, the steel ringing so loudly her eardrums throbbed.

Then -

Osai heard Ahs from the audience.

Lord Ijo rose, tottering, to his feet, his face drained of blood. Matsuo had slid down on one knee, facing away from the actor. He was holding the long sword extended behind him pointing upward and tucked closely under his armpit with both hands on the grip.

Leaning forward, Osai saw that the point of the blade rested against the actor's hara - the spot low on the abdomen where samurai cut open their bellies in seppuku.

Aki no Moritomo's short sword hovered a half inch above Matsuo's bare shoulder. The kimono hung open where the razor-edged sword has slit cleanly through the fabric.

Wonderful! the Lord cried.

Matsuo withdrew his sword and rose slowly to his feet as Aki no Morimoto stepped backward a few paces, turned, and bowed to the Lord.

Matsuo also bowed, the cloth hanging from his shoulder.

Lord Ijo, his face alive with enthusiasm, came down from the dais to examine Matsuo's shoulder, then Aki no Moritomo's sash.

Look! Not even so much as scratched! Oh, this is wonderful Wonderful!

Sumi Koshiba asked:

My Lord, who will you declare the winner of this match?

The Lord's excited face went rigid, assuming a pained expression.

Winner? He muttered, as if confused. Regaining his composure, he returned in solemn steps to the dais. Taking his seat, he extended the fan to point at Matsuo.

You, Sir Kyoshi, would have lost an arm. On a battlefield, such a wound might well have been mortal. Indeed, I have seen men die of less.

Matsuo bowed.

Slowly, Lord Ijo shifted the fan to point at the Noh actor, whose head lowered.

You, Sir Moritomo, would have had your belly cut open by Sir Kyoshi's sword.

The actor bowed.

The Lord lowered the fan and, his voice rising, intoned:

I therefore declare Sir Kyoshi to be the victor. We will open another cask of sake and drink to his long life!

"Matsukaze" is another excerpt from Mr. Wilson's novel Osai's Razor, which takes place in 17th century Japan.

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